Rediscovering the Noölogical Dimension of Higher Education: Guidance from the Pages of Philosophy

Micah Sadigh

“Without [philosophy] no one can lead a life free of fear or worry.” Seneca

Higher education is in a state of flux with changes that are antithetical to its original purpose. What was once meant to free the mind from the bondage of ignorance, to unleash creativity, and to promote justice has deteriorated into a scheme for securing jobs with the elusive promise of happiness and prosperity. While we need to attend to our physical and psychosocial needs, we neglect that dimension to our being that is central to humanity and its future, the noölogical dimension, which seeks and reaches out for meaning through self-transcendence. Higher education was conceived to provide a methodical, systematic approach toward life and its vicissitudes from the vantage point of wisdom. The path to such wisdom was paved through philosophical ideas and instructions, which offered a panoramic, a more encompassing view of life, than a life charted toward self-gratification. The current fragmentation of higher education has far-reaching consequences that can potentially affect civilization itself. A noölogical approach to its restructuring is offered here.

Plato’s Academy, the best-known birthplace of higher education, was not the child of impulse, a passing, entertaining idea, a response to the economic and political exigencies of the times, a packaged product that promised wealth and prosperity. It was a well-designed plan at freeing the mind from the darkness of ignorance and guiding it to the light of wisdom, hidden from the senses. It was a plan based on the astute teachings of Plato and his teachers and their teachers, from Thales to Heraclitus to Parmenides to Pythagoras and many in between.

When asked what the most difficult challenge in life was, Thales, often referred to as the Father of Philosophy, replied “To know oneself.”1 An almost identical inscription, an admonition, appears on the gate to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Self-knowledge was the starting point of it all, through dialogue and self-reflection, at first in subtle movements, then in a crawl, then in a climb, which culminated in seeing life from a higher ground, beyond the limitations of a shallow unexamined existence. “Things (in nature) keep their secrets,” Heraclitus reminds us, and our task is to unveil them so as to embrace their mysteries. True justice, many of these philosophers believed, was a natural extension to gaining wisdom into life itself, which philosophy prepared the mind to recognize. A higher education was, therefore, synonymous with greater justice, and a resistance to falsities, even if they present themselves with the appearance of truths: “Justice will overtake fabrications of lies and false witnesses,” Heraclitus said. To move toward greater justice, Pythagoras admonishes us, “Never do anything which you do not understand.” And learning, or knowing, alone by no means suggests understanding.

Where do we have the opportunity to open up minds to a deeper understanding of life, to unravel its mysteries, and show guidance as to ways of living a more meaningful and meaning-inspired life? A simple answer may suggest, in our institutions of higher education. Is that what is happening in such institutions? Are we teaching our students about the principles that govern life or are we teaching them about “success” and financial prosperity? Even though today the purpose of higher education may be viewed by many as the path to finding a job, does such a path suggest moving toward living a creative, meaningful life?

In a letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca writes, “A person sleeping lightly perceives impressions in his dreams and is sometimes, even, aware during sleep that he is asleep, whereas a heavy slumber blots out even dreams and plunges the mind too deep for conscious self. Why does no one admit his failings? Because he is still deep in them. It is the person who is awakened who recounts his dream, and acknowledging one’s failings is a sign of health.” Are we aware of the state of health and well-being, or the lack thereof, of higher education in our slumber and if so, what are the unintended consequences that we may have to encounter along the way? True that there is much activity in the world of higher education, very busy indeed, yet as Viktor Frankl reminds us, “The activity of an anthill can be called purposeful, but not meaningful.”2

“Education is,” Miriam Joseph suggests, “the highest of arts in the sense that it imposes forms (ideas and ideals) not on matter . . . but on mind. These forms are received by the student not passively but through active cooperation.”3 Is this the way we conceive of education, particularly higher education, today? Instead of forms, ideas and ideals, we act more than ever as if education were synonymous with acquiring information in order to secure a job. If such is the case, then educators are nothing but purveyors of information and career consultants.

The reason for the brokenness of higher education may very well be explained from a noölogical perspective, which is consistent with the Platonist view of the differences between the sensible and the intelligible, a shallow appearance of things, as opposed to things in their essence. Frankl delineates among three defining aspects of a person in what he refers to as “dimensional ontology;” or simply put, dimensions of being.4 These include the somatic, psychic, and the noëtic. The noëtic is a unique dimension of human beings that distinguishes us from animals. Every person, regardless of his or her upbringing, possesses this often neglected facet, which can, at times, remain elusive, even to the eye of the inquisitive observer, for it cannot be seen under the microscope, nor through the telescope. It is revealed in the way we approach life through creativity, when we make value-based commitments, and when we transcend those difficult moments in our lives, such as moments of great suffering. Ann Graber, of the International Victor Frankl Institute, suggests that the noëtic contains qualities that provide us with indispensable resources in life, such as “our will to meaning, our creativity, our capacity for love, our imagination . . . and our awareness of mortality.”5 Frankl’s dimensional ontology is an eloquent way of describing the multidimensionality of what it means to be human with the choices that it entails.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the Allegory of the Cave told by Socrates in Plato’s Republic. In this allegory, we learn about a group of people who are chained in a cave while watching distorted shadows on the walls before them. They do not realize that these shadows are not the real images but are vague projections of those outside the cave. Yet, so long as they keep their focus solely on the shadows, their minds are resistant to the true nature of what is being projected on the walls of the cave. Those who remain in the cave are entertained or frightened by the senseless, insubstantial shadows, while those who climb out of the cave begin to see things as they are. The climb out of the cave requires methodical preparedness, careful planning. In such darkness where the sense of sight is compromised, rendered ineffectual, the need for an inner sight, which is impervious to the surroundings, is imperative. And this inner sight is no other than wisdom (i.e., σοφία, sophia), that which philosophy imparts and cultivates. In every step of the way, there is a distinct possibility that we may falter, overcome by the anxiety of the unknown, at which time there may be a tendency to turn back to the bowels of ignorance. Fears and doubts surge up to cripple us, make us succumb; circumstances dictate, fate prevails, the chains that once held us back offer their safe and anxiety-free comfort of imprisonment, where decisions are made for us. Bit by bit our humanity diminishes, creativity fades, instincts rule as we recoil. It is so tempting at times to return to the catacombs of the familiar, where we see nothing but our own shadows. The words of Plato haunt us: “how could they see anything but the shadows if they [are] not allowed to move their heads? . . . the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows . . . ” There might be fleeting moments of quiet, security, and peace in such a place, but nothing lasting, no creativity, no progress—it is only a matter of time before our own shadows begin to frighten us, which leads us to further isolation. There, beauty fades, fear dictates. It is in such states that life will, most likely, become only a matter of survival, a search for comfort and material prosperity, with the looming threat that at any moment one’s existence is bound to become trivial, futile, insignificant, disposable. The climb out of the cave of ignorance is not an easy one, and not always a successful one.

To avoid such potential consequences on our climb out of the cave and to shore us along, two indispensable forms of guidance must be present: proper mentorship and the need for values. Who are the people who mentor us and what are the values that help us chart our course? They are both ever present in the pages of history, in the writings of philosophers such as Plato, Seneca, and Frankl, and so many other wise teachers. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to ask, “Are the existing institutes of higher education being guided by values, wisdom, and proper mentorship?” According to Paul Wong, a clinical psychologist at the International Network on Personal Meaning, “values are capable of influencing choice, effort, and persistence, as well as affective responses that occur when a goal oriented activity is successful or unsuccessful.”6 Wealth and prosperity are goals; yet that dimension of us that is not satisfied with mere survival reaches for values, seeks proper mentorship, for it craves meaning. The noëtic dimension has its own orientation and responds to its own forms of nourishment: values and higher values that guide in the direction of meaning. Then again, where shall we look for meaning in our self-absorbed world? “No one can lead a happy life,” Seneca teaches us, “if he thinks only of himself and turns everything to his purpose. You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.” This is the essence of Viktor Frankl’s philosophy, self-transcendence, the search for and the fulfillment of meaning outside the self.

The Broken Ladder to a Higher Education

Sadly, higher education today is beginning to look like a dismembered ladder, with its rungs floating in space, disconnected. There is only a hint that they were once a part of a structure—a meaningful, well-planned, deliberate structure. And if we were to trivialize, explicitly or implicitly, its interrelated components, we would be bound to compromise its integrity, its very essence, at which time a sense of meaninglessness and futility is bound to ensue: “I just need to get that course out of the way; it is only a course.” Such a scenario is not only destructive to the future of higher education, it is also a source of threat to the future of civilization, which education, and particularly higher education, is meant to guard and protect. More than ever, in our ever-shrinking world, we need to acquire a more encompassing view of the workings of life, with all of its diversity and the threads that bring together even the most seemingly disparate parts. A higher education takes us to a higher ground and offers us a deeper, more life-affirming perspective. “And what do we see when we are lifted up to that higher ground? Simply that all divisions, all demarcations, all delineations are illusory, fabricated, products of fear. From above, we see so much more. We see with clarity that nothing stands alone; all is woven together, nothing, nothing rests alone.”7

The tradition of the liberal arts education (more accurately, the liberating arts education) whose earliest conception reaches back to antiquity, was based on a careful preparation of the mind (and the body). Specific disciplines were placed together in a particular sequence as though fashioning the alphabet of a new language. The mind needed to be opened, expanded, challenged, comforted. Dialogues and dialectics provided the necessary tension that the noëtic dimension required. The eyes are not capable of seeing concord in discord, but the mind can, and the beauty that eludes the eyes is made manifest to the mind.

In time, due to the sheer ignorance of the significance of each discipline and its particular location upon the ladder that reached for a higher knowledge—or due to societal pressures, the need for conformity, and even economic exigencies—some disciplines were downplayed, given less attention, or avoided altogether, as they faded away. More expedient structures were introduced with practical and immediate benefits. How ingenious! Except, consider playing the music of the great masters such as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Debussy, Rachmaninov, and others on a piano keyboard where certain notes have been, conveniently, removed. “It is a more pragmatic and compact keyboard,” they call it; yet the music of the masters cannot be realized or recognized on it, though the keyboard produces many sounds, and some might be even delightful to the ears. Such sounds will never replace the majesty of the symphonies once conceived by such gifted minds.

The wisdom of Goethe calls our attention to what has been done so imprudently to that which was meaningful and wise, “Who would study and describe the living, starts by driving the spirit out of the parts: in the palm of his hand he holds all the sections, lacks nothing, except the spirit’s connection.”8 Tolstoy captures this same sentiment in his own eloquent way, as he challenges reasoning without wisdom, seeing parts and missing the whole… In his words, “If it were not so terrible, it would be laughable to see the pride and complacency with which, like children, we take apart the watch, removing the spring and making a plaything of it, only to be surprised when the watch stops running.”9 To address the pernicious fragmentation of higher education and the role of the various disciplines vital to its integrity, nowadays we hear about attempts to integrate, or reintegrate various “pieces” of its principle components, such as history, literature, art, and so on. These integrative, interdisciplinary schemes fall under four categories, only one of which offers any lasting remedy; only one of which has integrity.

  • Implied integration, whereby aspects of disciplines interact but not in a methodical fashion, indeed only in a perfunctory, assessable fashion. “We address historical contributions to our field at the start of every course, so why do we need history?” Here what is referred to as integration is a mere play on words, and can perhaps be more aptly referred to as a surface connection.

  • Practical integration, whereby certain courses are combined in anticipation of a certain prescribed outcome. “Such and such courses are needed for admission to a graduate program. Therefore, they need to be offered for that practical, necessary purpose.” Hence, it is only a matter of time when the once “practical” reasons may lose their urgency or importance, and so will the “integration.”

  • Theoretical integration occurs when a methodical set of observations suggests that at least a synergistic relationship exists between two or more disciplines, whose combination can result in greater success in certain areas. It is similar to practical integration but it is based on hypotheses that have been tested, ultimately supporting a theoretical framework. For example, it has been established that there is a strong positive correlation between mathematical skills and success in overall educational achievement.10 This clearly raises the question, “Are there aspects of humanity that cannot be objectified and measured?” Therefore, a theoretical approach can have serious limitations.

  • Philosophical integration, whereby the integration of various disciplines is driven by universal values that are life-centered and not simply goals oriented toward success. How could such values promote creativity, problem solving, justice, and result in living with a greater sense of meaning? They offer a view of life that is not two-dimensional, merely focused on self-satisfaction, self-enhancement, self-gratification. They require self-transcendence, their essence is noölogical. They ultimately offer a panoramic view of life and human existence. Within this framework, “we have not only the possibility of giving meaning to our life by creative acts and beyond that by the experience of Truth, Beauty, and Kindness, of Nature, Culture, and human beings in their uniqueness and individuality, and of love,” asserts Viktor E. Frankl.11

To reveal a more encompassing view of life, its beauty and intricacies, its laws and its mysteries, we need a higher, more encompassing perspective, that which a higher education was and is meant to provide. The darkness of the “Dark Ages” was resisted and dispelled through education, by recovering and embracing values that had guided humanity through the ages, by exploring what it meant to be human. We must do the same now. “Education must equip [humans] with the means to find meanings. Instead, education often adds to the existential vacuum. The students’ sense of emptiness and meaninglessness is reinforced by the way in which scientific findings are presented to them, by the reductionist way, that is. The students are exposed to indoctrination along the lines of a mechanistic theory of [human beings] plus a relativistic philosophy of life.”12

A series of courses put together for their impressive appearance of a “sound curriculum” does not suggest a climb toward a higher education, a higher understanding of life. Knowledge of life, and a deeper understanding of life, knowledge of self, and a deeper understanding of self, followed by self-transcendence, living for meaning outside the self, will open the mind to a world of wisdom; that is, the world of philosophy, with which and through which we can become active participants in the unfolding of life, by embracing life, protecting life, and attempting to grasp its Beauty, as many artists, poets, writers, and scientists have done in the past. To appreciate life in all of its manifestations, we need to gain skills necessary to see, hear, and entertain the coexistence of the opposing forces that shape reality. “From the interaction of two opposing impulses . . . and from the association of two opposing principles we have seen the origin of the Beautiful,” writes Friedrich Schiller, “whose highest ideal is therefore to be sought in the most perfect possible union.”13 The dialectic process, a key aspect of philosophical inquiry, prepares the mind to open itself to a deeper understanding. This is a necessary process and requires instruction, patience, and guidance. And those who impart such instructions are the ones who through much study can profess their understanding, and not simply their knowledge, of the workings of life. They are to be called professors, those who see Beauty in Justice, and that Justice is Beautiful.

Conclusion

In an essay published in 1784, Kant addressed the meaning of enlightenment in a bold and systematic fashion. “Enlightenment is people’s emergence from their self-incurred immaturity,” he suggested, “If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay . . . Thus only a few, by cultivating their own minds, have succeeded in freeing themselves from immaturity and in continuing to be bold on their way.”14 And in this vein he warns that in the absence of enlightenment people are bound to become subjects of their ruler, “mere instruments of their ends,” which will result in their settling the disputes of the rulers, by killing and slaughtering in the name of the rulers and for their causes.15 To the reader, this should not be a farfetched idea and perhaps is even reminiscent of ages past when disputes and wars devoured many—a portent of what is to come?

There is nothing egocentric about reaching for a higher understanding of life by means of a higher education. The enlightenment achieved in this fashion is meant to be meaningful and can be made meaningful so long as in the end it enhances culture, society, civilization. This climb to a higher plane for a higher cause cannot be simply invented, it cannot be a marketing ploy, a clever business scheme, for there is too much at stake when we have the future of humanity in sight. Keeping in mind that within us, all of us, there is the capability for searching and reaching for meaning outside ourselves and not simply for the sake of ourselves—in other words our capability for self-transcendence. “Self-transcendence, I would say, is the essence of existence; and existence, in turn, means the specifically human mode of being,” Frankl affirms. “To the extent to which this mode of being exceeds the psychological frame of reference, the appropriate and adequate approach to existence is not psychological but existential.”16

In an educational process that purports to liberate the mind from the darkness of ignorance “the essential activity of the student is to relate the facts learned into a unified, organic whole, to assimilate them as the body assimilates food, or as the rose assimilates food from the soil and increases in size, vitality, and beauty.”17 The organic nature of higher education cannot and should not be denied or neglected. If there is one word that best describes life, that word must be integration. Lifelessness, therefore, must be the antonym for integration, that is, disintegration or more aptly, fragmentation. The unifying, integrating, factor in human existence must apply to all and offer a sense of universality. Meaning is that factor. The noölogical dimension, where meaning resides, offers the path to such a realization, which can be achieved through an integrated, dynamic approach to a higher education; and our love for wisdom will light the path. As Seneca wrote, “Every hour of the day countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice we have to look to philosophy.”

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